Perhaps the title involves a bit of hyperbole. But if we are indeed in a battle to find space in our lives for attentive reading amid the distractions of modern technological life, it might involve something akin to bootcamp, where in a short space of weeks, civilians are turned into soldiers, and where civilian habits that might get you killed in short order are exchanged for habits that enable you to live life under fire.
Perhaps the drastic metaphor of bootcamp has a place. At one time, our shopkeepers and farmers read Shakespeare, The Bible, Plato, Aristotle, John Locke and others. John Adams traveled from town to town with a “poet in his pocket.” The great ideas that shaped our republic came from people who weren’t academics, but who kept company in the books they read with great ideas. At one time in this country, workers’ Athenaeums were popular for people who wanted to improve themselves and their understanding of the world. Apart from some things like TED talks, much of the content we have online that occupy much of our time are tweets that amuse or arouse us, memes, pictures and news of often-dubious and editorially biased origin. To break our addiction to these distractions to recover the experience of deep, extended and attentive reading might require something of a “bootcamp” experience in our lives.
Here are some starters I might suggest:
- Figure out a time when you are mentally sharpest and carve out a space of that time to read. Maybe to start, decide on the 15-20 minutes you will dedicate to reading, or a goal to read 10 pages during this sharpest time.
- Now, the hard part. Put yourself as far away from any screens including your smartphone as possible. You will find your ability to focus immeasurably enhanced by doing this.
- At this point, I would strongly discourage reading on any tablet that is not a dedicated e-reader, and would favor using a physical book. Any piece of technology with other apps will provide distractions that will undermine the goal of attentive, undistracted reading.
- Don’t start with a dense philosophical tome by Kant or Heidegger. Pick a genre and writer you like and start reading.
- If you already have the book at hand, so much the better provided it doesn’t violate the previous suggestion!
- If you don’t have something to read, I would suggest going either to your local library or a brick and mortar bookstore. If you want to cultivate a reading habit, you want to make friends with the people in these places who are highly motivated to help you find good books, because you will keep coming to them for recommendations! Besides, would you rather get a book recommendation from an algorithm than a friend?
- Speaking of friends, find a book buddy, maybe someone else is on the same journey to recovering literacy that you are, that you can meet up with to talk about the books in your lives. This can also help as you graduate to books that require more mental effort to understand. I’ve often found that great books demand multiple minds to really grasp their full meaning and I see so much more when I read with friends.
- Keep a book journal where you record the books you have read, and key thoughts you want to remember from those books, and how, if at all, the book has changed your thinking. Online tools like Goodreads make this convenient as long as you don’t get distracted from actually reading. (That’s really how this blog was born–as a way to remember what I read as well as to talk about books with others).
I’ll stop there other than suggesting that you might try working up to the goal of an hour of focused reading a day. Actually, I think if you follow some of these ideas, you will find yourself wanting to read more and stopping will be the problem.
Tomorrow, I will talk a bit more about what to read.